In a conference call Friday afternoon with the city’s mayoral campaigns, state officials issued a much-awaited ruling: Candidate Toni Harp has not broken the law by teaming up with a city clerk candidate to get her name on the ballot.
That judgement capped a frenzied day of campaign maneuvering, triggered by questions raised about Harp’s effort to get on the Democratic primary ballot.
Mayoral candidate Kermit Carolina said he thinks the Harp campaign has still acted at least unethically, if not illegally. The Harp campaign denies the charge.
Harp, a state senator, and Carolina, principal of Hillhouse High, are running for mayor along with Justin Elicker, Henry Fernandez, and Sundiata Keitazulu.
Friday’s conference (pictured above) stemmed from a recent blunder by the Democratic Town Committee (DTC), which failed to file papers on time so that the party’s endorsed candidates—Harp for mayor, Michael Smart for city clerk, and 30 aldermanic candidates—would receive an automatic spot on the Sept. 10 primary ballot.
As a result, all the candidates will have to petition to get on the ballot, gathering 2,406 signatures from New Haven registered Democrats. Harp immediately kicked off her petition drive Thursday evening by teaming up with Smart so that both of their names appear on a single petition.
Friday morning, the Carolina campaign raised questions about the legality of that move. Carolina and attorney Michael Jefferson, a key aide to his campaign, said the Harp/Smart petitions were illegal, since the candidates had filed to run only as individuals, not as a slate.
The legal questions were finally answered at 4 p.m. in a fourth-floor conference room in City Hall. A dozen people, including city staff and representatives from several campaigns, gathered around a speakerphone in the offices of the corporation counsel.
Victor Bolden, the city’s top lawyer, first dialed up Ted Bromley from the secretary of the state’s office. Bromley said that, according to state statute, candidates are permitted to have more than one name on a ballot petition, as long as they are running for different offices.
“As far as we’re concerned, a slate is not an issue in terms of ballot access,” Bromley said.
Asked about ballot order, Bromley said that slates appear first on the ballot, in the order in which they submit their completed petitions. The rest of the candidates, who are not in slates, will appear in alphabetical order by last name.
Bromley also explained that people may not “circulate” petitions for more than one candidate for the same office. This means that if someone wants to help, say, city clerk candidate Sergio Rodriguez gather signatures to get on the ballot, that person can not also gather signatures for the Harp campaign, because he or she would be circulating for Smart at the same time.
Bromley encourage the campaigns to train their circulators about that point.
After the phone call, Jefferson raised the issue of campaign spending: Can the Harp campaign spend money to gather petitions that would also benefit the Smart campaign?
Bolden next patched in Shannon Kief and Marianne Sadowski of the State Elections Enforcement Commission to answer campaign finance questions.
Kief and Sadowski said it’s not illegal for campaigns to spend money on efforts that will benefit another campaign, as long as the costs are shared proportionately and reported individually.
Two candidates could, for instance, go in on the printing and mailing of a flyer with both their names on it, as long as they split the cost of the mailer. “That doesn’t violate campaign finance laws,” Kief said.
“It still looks unethical,” said Carolina as he took the City Hall elevator down to the first floor. He continued to assert that Connecticut General Statutes Section 9-406 prevents candidates from cooperating in the way Harp and Smart are doing.
“They’re gaming the system,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s legal.”
Carolina said Harp is taking advantage of a DTC blunder to get her name at the top of the ballot. “She should be placed at the bottom of the ballot” according to alphabetical order. “That is the law.”
“This entire exercise today was their effort to keep the senator off the ballot,” said Harp campaign manager Jason Bartlett. “I think that’s sad.”
Bartlett said the Harp campaign is simply taking legal measures to get Harp’s name on the ballot in the same position it would have been if the DTC hadn’t erred.
An earlier version of this story follows:
After an afternoon huddle Friday, city corporation counsel Victor Bolden ruled the city did not break the law by letting candidates Toni Harp and Mike Smart petition together to get onto the primary ballot, but left open questions about campaign spending.
Bolden (at left in photo) made those statements after conferring in the city clerk’s office Friday afternoon with Michael Jefferson (at right), a lawyer and aide to Kermit Carolina’s mayoral campaign.
The Carolina campaign Friday morning raised legal questions that may point to a second blunder in two days for the Harp campaign: The Harp campaign may have erred by beginning to circulate petitions to get her name on the ballot on a slate with city clerk candidate Michael Smart.
The campaign may have erred—or it may not have. Bolden said he will convene a conference call with the campaigns, the city, and the secretary of the state to try to resolve the matter.
In Bolden’s interpretation, the city did no wrong. He declined to comment on whether the Harp and Smart campaigns are on the right side of the law.
The Harp campaign began circulating ballot petitions Thursday night. It did so because of a first blunder, by the Democratic Town Committee. The DTC endorsed Harp’s candidacy at a convention Tuesday night. That was supposed to put Harp’s name on the Sept. 10 primary ballot without the need to collect signatures. But then the DTC failed to turn paperwork in on time to make that happen. That error was discovered Thursday, and a rush ensued to start collecting the 2,406 signatures of registered Democratic voters needed to put Harp’s name on the ballot. (Three other Democratic mayoral candidates—Henry Fernandez, Kermit Carolina, and Justin Elicker—are also gathering signatures for that purpose.)
The Harp campaign gathered hundreds of supporters for a spirited event at its headquarters Thursday night to set them off gathering petitions. They put clerk candidate Smart’s name on the petitions, too, so that Harp and Smart could run as a slate—and therefore retain a top spot on the primary ballot.
Then, on Friday morning, candidate Carolina’s campaign read up on the election law. According to its interpretation, Harp can’t put out petitions to run as part of a slate in the primary—because she has already formed an individual candidate campaign committee, not a slate committee. People have given money to her campaign, not a joint mayor-clerk campaign.
City officials scrambled Friday morning to get answers to the legal questions.
At 12:15 p.m., Bolden arrived in the clerk’s office armed with a book of Connecticut General Statutes. He and Jefferson pondered the law together for a half an hour and then announced their interpretations, which differed.
Bolden said the city’s Democratic registrar of voters was acting within the law when she issued petitions with both Smart and Harp’s name on them. He pointed to state statute 9-410, which states that “any one primary petition may propose as many candidates for different offices or positions as there are nominations to be made or positions to be filled.”
Jefferson disagreed. “We do not believe the registrar of voters was correct in placing those names on the petition.” He said the law assumes that Harp and Smart were already running as “a unit,” as an official slate of candidates, which isn’t the case. The two candidates have individual campaign committees, not a single slate committee.
Jefferson said questions still remain about what campaign finance laws have to say about the Harp and Smart campaigns collecting signatures together. If someone gave money to the Harp campaign, for instance, is it legal for her campaign to spend that money gathering signatures for another candidate?
Bolden said that’s a question that’s beyond his duties as city corporation counsel. He said his only concern is seeing that the city followed the law, not the campaigns.
Harp campaign manager Jason Bartlett said no money will be spent gathering signatures.
Carolina (pictured) said the Harp campaign will have to spend money on something to gather signatures, even if it’s just making copies.
“It’s still an issue of ethics,” said Carolina. “It still appears unethical.”
“I don’t think the voters deserve to see this kind of hypocrisy take place,” he said. “If this is what we have to look forward to as a city, then we’re in trouble if we don’t do anything about it.”
“What we’re seeing is a small group of people that again and again think there’s one set of rules for them and another for everyone else,” mayoral candidate Fernandez remarked Friday about the latest questions.
“It’s bothersome to know there are individuals going out of their way to try to make it difficult for Sen. Harp to get on the ballot to run for mayor. We waited 30 minutes-plus yesterday for the corporation counsel, Sally Brown, and [Registrar of Voters] Sharon Ferrucci, who asked the questions on our behalf, to ensure that what we were doing was legal and compliant. The corp counsel and Sally had a conference call with the secretary of the state. We were instructed that we were in compliance. The statutes were 9-410 and 9-437. So for them to raise the question today after they had a 40-minute conference call with the secretary of the state’s office is troubling,” Bartlett said.
“You can’t switch midstream. People donated to you, not to a slate,” argued attorney Jefferson. “It raises serious questions about municipal campaign finance.”
“In terms of the Carolina campaign, their attorney seems to be confusing the issue,” Bartlett said. “We are on a petition with Michael Smart for the purpose of gaining access to the ballot. That is all we are doing. We are not ending our candidate committee and filing as a slate committee with Mr. Smart. Under no circumstances are we reporting financially in any way. We are running our campaign. He’s running his campaign in terms of finances.”
Meanwhile, Downtown Alderman Doug Hausladen raised questions Friday about a statement made by DTC Chairman Jackie James at the Thursday night’s petition event at Harp headquarters. James said the DTC would work hard to get Harp on the ballot through the drive.
Hausladen—who is supporting mayoral candidate Elicker against Harp—noted that because of the DTC’s paperwork filing goof this week, the primary ballot will not have a position for an officially endorsed DTC candidate. Therefore, he said, the DTC should not spend any money on petition drives for candidates.
“It’s important that we follow the bylaws of the Democratic Party,” Hausladen said.
Harp campaign manager Bartlett responded that no money will be spent on the petition drive, including no money from the DTC.
“These will be volunteers 100 percent. There will be no money spent on this petition drive,” Bartlett said.
“Just because Henry Fernandez or Justin Elicker have to pay people to get signatures, that’s their problem,” Bartlett said. “We had over 300 volunteers in our headquarters excited” to collect signatures.